The perfect 2-3 week Galápagos & mainland Ecuador travel itinerary
As one of the world’s foremost destinations for wildlife and marinelife, the Galápagos is a classic bucket-list topper, a place people dream of going their whole lives— but somewhere that often feels too distant or too expensive to actually visit. As for mainland Ecuador, it’s often overlooked in favour of seemingly more exciting neighbouring countries like Peru and Colombia, which is exactly what I did during my first trip to Latin America. And what a colossal mistake!
Ecuador is one of the most vibrant, striking countries on the continent, jamming active volcanoes, historic cities, Amazon jungle, surf beaches, and the world’s most distinctive archipelago of islands into a single compact destination. Coupled with the delicious traditional food, friendly locals, rich Andean culture, and insane abundance of wild animals, this is not somewhere you want to skip while travelling Latin America.
You could happily spend months exploring each unique region in Ecuador, but in 2-3 weeks, you can still experience some of the Galápagos and mainland Ecuador’s top highlights. Use this travel itinerary to plan the perfect 2-3 week trip to the Galápagos, Quito, Cotopaxi National Park, Baños, Montañita, and beyond, including heaps of tips on when to visit Ecuador, how to get around, and what to pack.
Check out my detailed Ecuador & Galápagos travel guides for more information:
- THE ULTIMATE ECUADOR TRAVEL GUIDE
- ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A LAND-BASED TRIP TO THE GALÁPAGOS (WITHOUT A CRUISE)
Planning for your trip
Best time to visit Ecuador
Despite being a rather small country, Ecuador is amazingly diverse in terms of both landscape and climate, often meaning that one region is experiencing heavy rain while another is quite dry.
To coordinate low tourist season in the Galápagos with relatively dry weather on the mainland AND large numbers of Manta Ray on the Pacific Coast, September and October are probably the best months for this itinerary.
In the Galápagos, there are generally just two seasons: a wet, warmer season from December to June and a dry, colder season from July to November. Both water temps and underwater visibility can be better in the wet season, but you’ll have clearer days in the dry season and it never really drops below 20, so both are good options. I go into a lot more detail about the best time to visit the Galápagos in terms of weather and wildlife in this post, but suffice to say that anytime is going to be really special. My main advice is to, if possible, avoid high season from November to March and June to August, as the islands will be more crowded, prices will increase, and tours can book out.
Back on the mainland, the Ecuadorian highlands around Quito and the Andes tend to experience their dry season from June to September, whereas the Amazon is (slightly) drier from August to February. Diving with Manta Ray near Montañita (Bajo Cope or Isla de la Plata) is also best from July to October. Beyond this, there is genuinely no bad time to visit Ecuador!
Getting to Ecuador
This itinerary works with either Quito or Guayaquil as your port of arrival, and both cities have large international airports and bustling international bus terminals that make it easy to arrive into Ecuador from pretty much anywhere in the world.
I’d suggest flying out to the Galápagos as your first destination, and the flight time (2hrs) and price ($300-500USD return) is usually very similar whether you’ve chosen to depart from Quito or Guayaquil. LATAM, TAME, and Avianca all operate daily flights from the mainland to Baltra/Seymour (GPS), which is the main airport for the islands located near Santa Cruz and the route I’d recommend for most people.
You can find information on booking flights to the Galápagos, the National Park fees, transiting between islands, and heaps more in this comprehensive post: ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A LAND-BASED TRIP TO THE GALÁPAGOS (WITHOUT A CRUISE)
Getting around Ecuador
As with most South American countries, Ecuador has a brilliant network of public buses connecting every city, town, and natural attraction, and this is absolutely the best way to get around. The buses in Ecuador don’t usually have a toilet on board or offer the super comfy semi-cama seats that you’ll find in larger countries, but they do make up for it by being incredibly inexpensive. The general rule is that you’ll pay just $1-2USD per hour of bus travel.
This itinerary necessitates 2 domestic flights (to and from the Galápagos), but beyond that, you can easily visit every destination and point of interest below using only public buses, which don’t need to be booked in advance.
There’s also the option to travel with Ecuador Hop, a new hop-on/hop-off bus service from Quito to Montañita via all the destinations in this post (plus a couple others that have been added since I travelled!). It’s more expensive than travelling by public bus, true, but it has some definite draws— added convenience of hostel pick-up/drop-off, cool extra stops along the journey, and a whole bus of fun backpackers to hang out with. After travelling around Ecuador by public bus and then with Ecuador Hop, I wrote a super in-depth comparison to help you decide which is better for you!
Read more: AN HONEST REVIEW OF ECUADOR HOP
Health concerns in Ecuador
With this particular Ecuador itinerary, there are very few health concerns you need to be aware of. Malaria and yellow fever risk are considered to be very low or non-existent in all of the destinations described below, so unless you’re planning additional travel in the Amazon, there’s probably no need to take any prophylaxis.
There is, however, a chance of experiencing problems related to the altitude in Quito (2,850m) or if you’re trekking around Cotopaxi (5,000m), which might be as minor as general fatigue and lightheadedness or as serious as actual altitude sickness. I’d recommend checking out my posts about altitude so you know what to expect, both in Quito and in Cotopaxi National Park.
Read more: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN SOUTH AMERICA
Safety in Ecuador
Generally speaking, Ecuador is a very safe country, even for solo female travellers, as long as you use common sense and take some basic safety precautions.
Really, the main places you need to be alert are Quito and Guayaquil— it’s probably best not to walk around alone at night, always take an Uber rather than a taxi, and keep your personal belongings close in crowded public areas. During the day, I was more than comfortable alone, even carrying my camera, but don’t do anything to make yourself a target for petty theft (e.g. don’t put your phone/money in a back pocket if you’re walking through a crowd of people).
Travelling on public buses, you also need to be very aware of your belongings, such as placing your large backpack/suitcase under the bus by yourself (not letting someone carry it off the bus “to put it underneath for you”) and keeping your carry on items in your lap or at your feet. I didn’t experience it myself, but there are a number of known bus-related scams in Ecuador, so just make sure to keep an eye on your valuables and you should be fine.
Read more: THE ULTIMATE ECUADOR TRAVEL GUIDE
Budget for Ecuador
This itinerary really has 2 parts (the Galápagos and mainland Ecuador) and prices are wildly different between these two places, so I’m going to present each budget separately first and then show a total budget for this specific 2-3 week Galápagos and mainland Ecuador travel itinerary:
Budget for Galápagos Islands
I detail a lot of the specific costs for the Galápagos in this post that will help you make your own specific budget estimate, but for a 8-day, land-based trip to the Galápagos, I’ve worked out that you only need about $1,000USD ($200AUD per day) including flights and national park fees, inexpensive accomodation, lunch and dinner at a restaurant, 2 diving tours, and 2 other inexpensive island hopping or snorkelling tours.
That number will increase if you want to add a few more tours or stay in a nicer hotel, but honestly not by too much! If you start looking at actual resorts or inclusive packages, then the budget will increase exponentially, but around $1,000-$1,200USD is totally doable for most budget travellers.
Budget for mainland Ecuador
At the upper end of the spectrum for the mainland Ecuador section of this itinerary, I’d estimate that you need a grand total of $810USD for 10 days, or about $127AUD per day (not including flights or buses to actually get to Ecuador). This assumes that you’d be staying in some Airbnbs or private hostel rooms, eating at some nicer restaurants, occasionally taking Uber or a tourist bus over the public bus, and splurging on a few tours or activities, like a guided trip to Cotopaxi National Park and diving in Ayangue.
For those on a shoe-string budget, you can still follow this itinerary and experience a lot of spectacular places by making a few sacrifices in terms of convenience/comfort and skipping some tours for a grand total of $310USD, or about $48AUD per day.
Total budget for this itinerary
Based on these two separate components of the itinerary, you’re looking at anywhere from $1,300USD to $2,000 USD to travel for 18 days around the Galápagos Islands and mainland Ecuador, which equates to about $112AUD or $175AUD per day, respectively.
Packing list for Ecuador
A brief packing list specific to this 2-3 week Galápagos and mainland Ecuador travel itinerary:
- 3x shirts and singlets for warmer afternoons and hiking
- Fleece (only bring one, because you will definitely buy an alpaca jumper in Quito or Otavalo)
- Warm jacket (I’d recommend at least one down jacket because it gets cold, regardless of time of year; buy a scarf on arrival)
- Rain jacket
- Tights or other comfortable pants
- 2x shorts for hiking or around town
- Sunnies + hat
- Warm hat
- Comfortable shoes for walking around (runners or converse)
- Hygiene: shampoo, tooth brush, razor, etc (leave the make-up and hair straightener at home, everyone travelling Ecuador is going natural and it’s great)
- A reusable water with a built-in filter
- Passport (+ colour photo copies), credit cards
- Phone with local SIM card (I’d recommend Movistar)
- Camera + spare batteries!
- Travel adapter (Ecuador uses the same outlets as the USA, like this)
*Overview: recommended itinerary
- Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos (4-5 days)
- Isla Isabela, Galápagos (3-4 days)
- Quito (3-4 days)
- Cotopaxi National Park & Laguna Quilotoa (1-3 days)
- Baños (3-5 days)
- Montañita (2-4 days)
Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos
After lots of transiting (and possibly even an overnight stay in Quito or Guayaquil before an early morning flight to Baltra), you have finally arrived in the Galápagos! Isla Santa Cruz is the most populous and developed of the 19+ islands that make up this spectacular archipelago off Ecuador’s west coast, but it’s still so much quieter and more rugged than I could have imagined. The main town of Puerto Ayora is little more than a few blocks, and although there are upscale tourist restaurants lining the Avenida Charles Darwin, you only need to walk a few minutes back from the harbour to find a more authentic, local side of the island at Los Kioskos.
There are seriously SO many things to do on Santa Cruz, many of which won’t cost you more than a couple dollars, like visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station or swimming at Las Grietas, but the absolute best reason to make this your base for 4-5 days is that you can easily access heaps of other islands on day tours. My favourite of these day tours was out to Isla Bartolomé, an impossibly vibrant island with one of the most iconic views in the Galápagos and an adorable colony of tiny penguins. I’d recommend choosing 2 islands to visit, as this is the best way to see wildlife!
In addition to island tours, Santa Cruz is also within easy reach of some of the best dive sites in the Galápagos, including Gordon Rocks, Mosquera Island, Seymour Channel, and Daphne Minor, all of which are visited by enormous schools of hammerhead sharks, rays, whitetip reef sharks, sea turtles, and plenty of other colourful marinelife. Even if you’ve never dived before, most shops will still take you out, teach you the basics, and then guide you on a single dive at one of the easier sites, so I’d highly recommend getting under the water no matter your experience level.
Recommended time: 4-5 days
Highlights: See Galápagos Tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station; go swimming at Las Grietas or snorkelling at Tortuga Bay; scuba dive with enormous schools of hammerhead sharks and rays at Gordon Rocks, Mosquera, or North Seymour; explore the highlands at El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve or Los Gemelos; take a day trip out to beautiful Isla Bartolomé
Getting there: Fly from either Quito or Guayaquil into Baltra Airport (GPS), and then take the shuttle bus from the airport to the Itabaca Canal ($5USD). Here, catch a quick ferry ($1USD) across to Isla Santa Cruz and then take the bus ($5USD) or a taxi ($20USD) to the main town of Puerto Ayora. Detailed instructions provided in this post.
Where to stay: Hostal Sueños Silvestres has basic but very comfortable rooms ($80USD for a double with private bathroom) just 2 blocks back from Avenida Charles Darwin, the main street running through Puerto Ayora. It’s an easy walk to a few small shops, all the restaurants and dive shops in town, and even the ferry.
Isla Isabela, Galápagos
After a spectacular few days of island-hopping and exploring heaps of awesome dive sites from Santa Cruz, catch the ferry across to Isla Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago, but also one of the most “natural”. Marine Iguanas shuffle slowly across the middle of the road, Galápagos Sea Lions snooze on the beach, and there’s hardly more than a handful of restaurants and shops in the main town of Puerto Villamil. This is the real Galápagos, unpolished and raw and incredibly magical.
There aren’t as many opportunities on Isabela to day-trip out to nearby islands, but the island itself has more than enough to keep you entertained. In fact, some of the absolute best snorkel sites in the Galápagos can be explored on inexpensive half-day tours from Puerto Villamil, including Los Tuneles and Las Tintoreras. Expect to see hundreds of whitetip reef sharks, Golden Rays, Spotted Eagle Rays, sea turtles, sea horses, and Galápagos Sea Lions without ever leaving the surface of the water.
Between day tours, there are also some phenomenal activities you can do entirely on your own on Isabela, including cycling through Los Humedales (the wetlands) to the Wall of Tears, passing dozens of giant tortoises and Galápagos flamingos on the way, snorkelling at Concha de la Perla, or exploring the little beaches right in town. There’s a lot less bustle on Isabela than Santa Cruz, but there’s also an undeniable charm to the island, an unassuming quiet that seems completely at odds with the popularity of the Galápagos. It’s the perfect place to wrap up a spectacular land-based trip out to the islands before heading back to the mainland for even more incredible natural beauty.
Recommended time: 3-4 days
Highlights: Snorkel with sea turtles, reef sharks, golden rays, eagle rays, sea horses, and more at Los Tuneles, Las Tintoreras, or Cocha de la Perla; cycle to El Muro de las Lágrimas to discover the unique flora and fauna of the island; swim with marine iguanas at Playa Isabela; look for flamingos in Los Humedales; trek up Volcán Chico or Volcán Sierra Negro
Getting there: From Puerto Ayora (Isla Santa Cruz), ferries depart daily for Isabela at both 7.30am and 2.30pm. These inter-island ferries cost $30 each way and can be booked online in advance or last-minute at any of several dozen tour agencies in Puerto Ayora. For more details on travelling between islands, check out this post.
Where to stay: Hotel Star Fish has incredibly comfortable, air-conditioned rooms that open onto a quiet courtyard for just $65USD/night (double room). The hotel is also an easy walk to anywhere in town including the ferry, main restaurant area, and the beaches.
Flying from the Galápagos to Quito, the country’s high-altitude, volcano-circled capital, it’s now time to explore mainland Ecuador, and there’s no better place to start than this UNESCO World Heritage-listed city. Quito might not be on the top of your list— it certainly doesn’t attract the same kind of buzz as other Latin American hot-spots like Cusco or Buenos Aires—but I guarantee there is SO much to love here, from the impeccably preserved historic centre and the gorgeous colonial-era buildings to the panoramic views from countless hills and volcanos surrounding the city.
For the best introduction to Quito, join a free walking tour, exploring the city’s history and culture with a knowledgable local. There are heaps of significant buildings and churches in the historic centre, but you’ll also learn about Ecuador’s hard-won independence from Spain, its shift to the US Dollar, and its long history of cacao production. That’s right, Ecuador has some of the best chocolate in the entire world, and there are more shops and cafes pumping out sweet treats in Quito than you could ever hope to visit.
Between taking the TelefériQo up to Volcán Pichincha, digging into an enormous traditional meal on Calle de la Ronda, and climbing to the Tower of the Condors in the Basílica del Voto Nacional, take a day trip out to the Otavalo Markets for the absolute best souvenir shopping in Quito (think alpaca scarves and jumpers in every colour of the rainbow). You can easily make the trip on your own, catching an Uber to Terminal Carcelen (20min) and then a bus to Otavalo (2hrs; $2.60USD), and it’s a great way to stock up on cozy clothes before heading off to chilly Cotopaxi National Park.
Recommended time: 3-4 days
Highlights: Take the TelefériQo up to a stunning lookout on Volcán Pichincha; explore the old world charm of Calle de la Ronda; take a day trip out to the Otavalo Markets to buy local handicrafts like alpaca scarves; climb to the top of the Basílica del Voto Nacional; go out for a boogie in popular Plaza Foch; explore the bustling Plaza de la Independencia and its many significant monuments and buildings; visit the Virgen de El Panecillo
Getting there: From the Galápagos (Baltra Airport), fly to Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport, from which a taxi into the city is a reasonable $25USD (the drive is about 1hr). Although it’s usually far safer and cheaper to order an Uber in Quito, taxis from the airport are generally considered to be safe and all operate a fixed-rate between the airport and the city, so in this instance it can be more convenient.
Where to stay: My absolute FAVOURITE chain/pair of hostels in Ecuador is Community; the Quito location is just a few blocks off Plaza de la Independencia and even has a great rooftop! Expect comfortable rooms ($10USD/night), incredible breakfasts, nightly events, and shared long-table-style dinners for just $5, which is such an excellent way to mingle with other travellers and make friends.
Cotopaxi National Park & Laguna Quilotoa
Leaving the city bustle behind, travel just 2hrs with Ecuador Hop (or by public bus, if you have extra time) to snow-capped and burnt-red Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. There are so many ways to experience the National Park, including scenic horse rides through the mountains and beautiful Laguna Limpiopungo, but my absolute top recommendation is to make the breathless climb up to Refugio Jose Rivas and onwards to the base of the Cotopaxi Glacier at 5,000m. The volcano is truly a sight from any distance, but up close— breathtaking in every sense.
Travelling with Ecuador Hop, it’s super easy to visit Laguna Quilotoa directly from Cotopaxi, either staying overnight in a small town on its shores or just spending a few hours exploring before continuing onwards to Baños. With 4-5 days, you can hike the popular Quilotoa Loop, but even with just half a day, you’ll be able to see the active crater’s most spectacular vantage points and really fall in love with its sparkling turquoise lake.
Recommended time: 1-3 days
Highlights: Climb to Refugio José Rivas or continue onwards to the Cotopaxi Glacier, 5,000m above sea level; admire Cotopaxi from Laguna Limpiopungo; walk around the rim of Laguna Quilotoa or hang out at Shalala Viewpoint for the best view
Getting there: Ecuador Hop directly connects Quito with all the main highlights of Cotopaxi National Park and Laguna Quilotoa; passes start at $69USD for the section between Quito and Baños (including as many days as you want in Cotopaxi and Quilotoa).
Where to stay: If you are travelling with Ecuador Hop, stay at the beautiful Chuquiragua Lodge (dorm or private room for $15USD/night); their food is unbelievable and there’s even a free spa and sauna on-site. Otherwise, Secret Garden Cotopaxi is a top choice in the National Park, with amazing views of the surrounding mountains and a great social vibe.
Next up is Ecuador’s high-adrenaline adventure capital, a lush riverside town dominated by pumping waterfalls, boiling hot springs, and striking mountain scenery. There’s an insane amount to do here and, best of all, the activities are extremely budget-friendly.
If you only do one thing in Baños, it should be cycling The Waterfall Route, a 25km journey that highlights some of the region’s most spectacular waterfalls, PLUS ziplines, cable cars, swings, and even a bungy jump along the way. It’s one of the best ways to pack a single day with jungle scenery, intense adrenaline rushes, and secret swims, all without needing to pay for a tour or a guide.
Baños is easily somewhere you could spend weeks exploring, but over the next few days, tick off some of the town’s other major highlights like swinging off the “end of the world” at Casa del Arbol, rafting the turbulent Rio Pastaza, or indulging in a favourite local pastime at the Termas de la Virgen hot springs. It’s impossible not to enjoy yourself in this outdoor paradise, but if you can manage to tear yourself away from all the waterfalls and death-defying ziplines, Ecuador’s Pacific Coast will certainly be worth it.
Recommended time: 3-5 days
Highlights: Explore dozens of waterfalls around Baños, including Cascada de Agoyán, Cascada Manto de la Novia, El Paílón del Diablo, and Cascada Rocío Machay, by cycling the Ruta de las Cascadas; white water rafting, canyoning, canopying, or bungy jumping in the jungle; mingle with the locals at Termas de la Virgen, the boiling hot springs at the base of a waterfall right in town; swing over all of Baños on the Extreme Swing or at the insta-famous Casa del Arbol
Getting there: Travel directly from Laguna Quilotoa to Baños with Ecuador Hop; passes start at $69USD for the section between Quito and Baños, which includes Cotopaxi and Quilotoa.
Where to stay: Hands down, the best place to stay in Baños is Community Hostel, a super affordable ($10USD/night), amazingly social hostel famous for its nightly long-table-style dinners. Expect to make heaps of cool new friends and probably pack on a few kgs from all the incredible food.
Last but certainly not least on the itinerary is sunny Montañita, a once sleepy village along the Ruta del Sol that is now widely known as one of the best places in Ecuador to surf (and party). Montañita is undeniably fun, the kind of destination where you can really lose track of the days as you laze on the beach in between all-night boogying at the local bars. But there’s definitely another, less well-known reason to come to Montañita: diving with giant Manta Ray.
Ecuador is home to the world’s largest population of Oceanic Manta Ray, with thousands of 5-7 metre rays visiting the waters near Isla de la Plata and Bajo Cope each year, typically from July to October. Dive operators in Puerto Lopez and Ayangue operate boats out to the sites, and both of these towns are easily reached from Montañita in a single day.
I can’t even begin to describe how incredible it is to dive with Manta Ray, especially in an off-the-beaten-path destination like Ayangue— it is absolutely guaranteed to be the highlight of your time in Ecuador (possibly even the highlight of your life). There is NO BETTER end to your trip than coming face to cephalin fin with the queen of the ocean.
Recommended time: 2-4 days
Highlights: Learn to surf in trendy Montañita; have one too many cheap cocktails on a night out; go scuba diving with Manta Ray from nearby Ayangue or Puerto Lopez; explore Ecuador’s “Other Galápagos”, Isla de la Plata
Getting there: Cooperativa Baños has direct buses between Baños and Montañita departing daily for around $15USD. I’d recommend the night bus, which will take 10hrs; book directly at the bus station in Baños, no need to reserve in advance.
Where to stay: Iguana Surfer’s Lodge ($6USD/night) has simple, clean dorm rooms and a seriously festive vibe, located very central to all the popular bars and restaurants in Montañita.
Read more about Ecuador